Speaking up for Michael Foot
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HAILED as the best Tory PM we never had on the publication of his memoirs entitled Kind of Blue, former Cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke has been able to observe the quality of politicians since arriving in the Commons, aged 29, in 1970.
And without doubt he recognises the distinct declining quality of Westminster talent and in particular picks out Hampstead’s Michael Foot, so often derided as Labour leader, for his oratory skills and Highgate’s Barbara Castle too, two late stalwarts he knew during almost five decades on the political front line.
In a book packed with revelations about past prime ministers – he insists troublesome Margaret Thatcher truly changed the course of the nation – stories are told with wit and charm, his admiration of Michael Foot tops the MPs he admired, along with the dreaded Enoch Powell.
Ken Clarke. Photo: Ministry Of Justice
Clarke refers to one speech by Foot when he was Leader of the House in James Callaghan’s government when he rejected political venom and “made a brilliant, entertaining and humorous speech which was largely a satire of the unlikely combination of parties with which he was threatened”.
And he adds: “There was a superb passage in which he expressed his sorrow and concern for young David Steel, who, he mockingly suggested, had fallen under the malign influence of ‘a lady’ – that is, Margaret Thatcher – who was leading him astray.”
Quoting Foot direct, he reports: “I should very much like to know, as I am sure would everyone else, what exactly happened last Thursday night. I do not want to misconstrue anything, but did she send for him or did he send for her – or did they just do it by billet-doux?
Barbara Castle. Photo: BBC
“Cupid has already been unmasked. This is the first time I have ever seen a chief whip who could blush. He has every right to blush. Anybody who was responsible for arranging this most grisly of assignations has a lot to answer for.”
Clarke is equally forthcoming about Barbara Castle, whom he describes as “a splendid woman... a very formidable debater” and recalls: “Her opening style when starting a speech was always almost excessively sweet and charming reason, and she would purr in a rather affected manner which was not particularly interesting to her opponents.
“My technique when dealing with her, mainly for my own entertainment, was to try to get her to lose her temper early in any speech, by riling her with my interventions.”
Nevertheless, Clarke records the ugly times when Michael Foot confronted the activities of extreme left-wing politics during his time as Labour leader.
“Michael was a delightful and benign bibliophile but some of his followers, particularly those in the Militant Tendency, were not,” he writes.
“I had conversations in Annie’s Bar with moderate old friends in the Labour Party who described the problems they faced.
“At least one had his tyres slashed when attending a party meeting in his constituency. Others were being deselected by constituency associations. The militant membership began to call constituency meetings at which they would filibuster into the small hours until the regular membership had all gone home, at which point they would pass extreme motions.”
No doubt his Tory colleagues in his own Brexit-divided party have taken note.
• Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir. By Ken Clarke, Macmillan, £25
• Ken Clarke will be discussing his memoir at Daunt Books, 83 Marylebone High Street, W1, on Tuesday (October 25) at 7pm, £10, 020 7224 2295